The Fantastic Notion of Prayer
My annoying children and a Freudian conjecture
The other day I was watching a movie when my two small children got into a terrible accident. They were both bleeding profusely and started crying for help, imploring in the most plaintive tones that I do something to help them. I couldn’t be bothered, to be honest. The movie was excellent and I didn’t quite see why I should stop watching it. Yes, they were my children and all, but I wanted to impress upon them once and for all that life is tough, that my ways are inscrutable and that I’m not to be relied upon. The little buggers would have none of it. They continued to pester me until I could not enjoy my movie anymore. I sat up in angered resignation and examined their wounds. I decided that I’d save one and let the other die, that way the gratitude and praise of the surviving one would be prodigious — I just can’t get enough of that. So I paid close attention to see who was asking for my help the most beseechingly and saved that one. Then I went back to my movie with an improved opinion of myself.
Prayer through the prism of reason
If the above tale were true, my behavior would be considered an abomination, and rightly so. I’d be universally condemned by mankind and spend the rest of my life in jail. To what extent does it differ, though, from what prayer represents in the religious world? As I see it, it doesn’t. It seems to me that no more than a minute’s reflection should be enough to see how preposterous a notion it is. Yet prayer appears to be so embedded in our psychological makeup that, whatever reason may tell us (assuming we even allow it to have a say here), we’re not likely to let it go just like that. I remember that for quite a while after I had lost my religious faith I would revert to prayer in difficult moments. Then at some point, for better or for worse, that stopped entirely (and not because I never had any of those moments again).
In the image of God?
We’re made in the image of God, we’re told, but that can’t be, because we’re better than a God that needs prayers to help his children in distress. Skeptics posit that it’s the other way around, that we have created God in our own image. That would explain why we attribute all kinds of human failings to God. Take the God of the Old Testament, for example. In the measured words of Richard Dawkins, it’s “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” But even Jesus is not always nice. He said things like this, for example: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.” At any rate, the skeptics are not quite right either, because, as noted, we’re better than the God we’ve invented. We can be, and usually are, kinder. We wouldn’t condemn our own children to eternal torments if they misbehaved, for example, and again we don’t typically need supplications from them before we deign to help them.
How is it then that we have conceived of a supreme being that’s not any better than us — that’s arguably worse than us — and that, inexplicably, we’re supposed to love and praise?
The Freudian conjecture
Perhaps there’s a sort of Freudian explanation both for our belief in God and for our conception of his nature.
As children, most of us enjoy the security, comfort and love that our parents provide, and we perceive them to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Further, they constantly apply rewards and punishments to guide our behavior, and sometimes give in to our nagging and sometimes don’t (in a manner that might well be perceived by us as capricious or arbitrary).
It’s hard not to notice the parallels between this and a God whom we believe to be omniscient and omnipotent, loving but not unconditionally so, punishing and rewarding according to our acts, and sometimes disposed to accede to our prayers. In other words, the type of God usually imagined by the religious traditions of the world.
It may well be, then, that the way we experience life as children becomes embedded in our psyche, which would explain why we cling to our belief in God as adults, and why some of us are liable to feel a painful and disconcerting void if we let go of the God our subconscious conjured up to replace what we lost when we ceased to be children.
Now, our parents do not normally behave like a terrifying and punishing God, but perhaps in our impressionable childish minds we perceive them as affectionate yet formidable and implacable judges, thus our paradoxical conception of God. And it’s likely the case that the type of God we’re inclined to favor as adults corresponds to how indulgent or severe our parents were with us when we were children. Thus austere and strict parents could induce a belief in a fearsome God, while kindly ones could give rise to a belief in a God of a loving and forgiving nature.